Sony's Patapon is one of the landmark critically acclaimed titles on the company's PlayStation Portable handheld thus far. A blend of rhythm and strategy genres, the game features iconic two-dimensional artwork, creating an unusual, humorous, and engaging experience on a platform too frequently known for hand-me-down ports of PlayStation 2 games.
To get to the core of that creative process, and to learn more about what one of the developers who had created one of the system's most recognizable games thinks, Gamasutra traveled to Sony's development offices in Tokyo to talk to Hiroyuki Kotani, creator of the series, and 10-year Sony Computer Entertainment veteran.
Here, Kotani, joined by associate producer Junichi Yoshizawa, discusses the inspirational process for Patapon, which has just received a sequel in Japan.
He also touches on his philosophy on developing games that are simple and deep rather than complicated, and even what he learned in his previous career as an elementary school teacher that can apply to developing games for all audiences.
So, something I wanted to talk about, particularly with Patapon is that -- this is my personal observation, and you may not agree, but -- many games made by developers for the PSP don't seem to take into account the PSP hardware very well.
But Patapon, I think, is a game that you can easily play portably, that is easy to see what's going on, and it's a game that's well-suited to the PSP; so I was wondering, you know, how you approached that issue, and how it informed your development of the game.
Hiroyuki Kotani: Actually, I am very happy to hear that -- but at the same time, I got a little bit nervous! The most important thing that I wanted to realize in the game was that I wanted people to enjoy the game casually; so in that sense I think it really very much matched the identity of the PSP hardware.
Is that something that you thought about? I mean, was that just your opinion, or was that based on research that Sony had done about the audience? Who do you see as the audience for this game?
HK: Well, the idea came from myself, and I don't rely on market research. I don't want to take a very passive attitude of relying on market research. Rather, my attitude is more active; I'm going to offer something that is interesting to the market. And you asked what would be audience of this game title? Anybody who wants to have fun!
Sony's Patapon (left) and Loco Roco
Something that I found interesting -- and I want to know if it's a coincidence -- this and Loco Roco, the games aren't very similar, but they both have some similarities. They're both 2D, and they both have bright colors, sharp lines, and very iconic art direction. Do you think it's something you both arrived at because it works well on the PSP?
HK: Well it wasn't about how to take advantage of the PSP hardware, however, I wanted to make the users feel closer to the characters -- therefore, I used bright colors; I used a funny character which people might find themselves pretty close to, so that people would feel that they're in the same world.
Junichi Yoshizawa: That was Mr Kotani's personal opinion; and actually we've heard that opinion, that Loco Roco and Patapon look similar, but from our opinion, it's just a coincidence.
It's similar in a very superficial way, but they obviously have a very different character. And it's interesting to see, because something that I've been thinking about is, a lot of developers try to replicate hardcore 3D games on PSP, and they run into problems with the controls, or with visibility of the game; and I was wondering, how much of your approach was based around solving those problems? Or was it just your personal inspiration that led you to make a game in this manner?
HK: Well, the most important point about Patapon was to make it simple. The less of the information, the better. Therefore, there's only three major types of command; that is: pata-pata-patapon, pon-pon-patapon, and chaka-chaka-patapon.
We're reaching the point in the industry that we're trying to make games that are more simple, and more broadly appealing, and some developers, I think, really struggle with that because they want to make games that are more hardcore instead. It seems to me that you naturally wanted to make a game that could be enjoyed pretty easily, and have ideas that people could relate to, or understand easily -- so I was wondering if that's true; if that's the case?
HK: Actually, I'm very honored to hear that, in saying that I just naturally came up with the easy, enjoyable game, so that people can understand what is going on in the game, and so they can feel closer to the game. I'm very honored -- and I think the Patapons are happy, too!
There's been a belief that a simple game can't be deep, and I think that a simple game can be deep; and, conversely, I think that a complicated game might be a shallow game, from a gameplay perspective -- it just has a lot of complication. So, how do you see that issue, within development?
HK: The way I came up with a solution is to divide the game into two different layers. One is the very simple game, so that a player can clear the goal with just three commands. But for those users who want to play a deeper game, they can use weapons; they can collect equipment and weapons, to try to clear different missions, with different goals.
In addition to that, the basic idea of this game is about rhythm, so you have to beat the rhythm in the accurate way -- and even though you are giving the command by beating the rhythm, you are also singing a song with the Patapons.
And so, it's not just a simple game: it's like creating the music with the Patapons, and that's what makes the deeper aspect of this game.
It's interesting, because I think that this game is a combination of elements that are generally thought to be pretty separate. You don't see a lot of RPGs or strategy type games with a rhythm element; they're usually kept separate, and the games would be completely different games. You know, something like, either, Guitar Hero, or Final Fantasy -- a big difference between them, from a user perspective. So, I was wondering what you think about mixing up genres like that.
HK: Well, I just happened to encounter the characters, the Patapons, and then I just naturally imagined -- or, rather, they just naturally jumped into my head, and they were beating the drum, marching.
That actually makes sense, from the perspective of soldiers marching, and beating on a drum. It's not to suggest that the idea doesn't make sense together; it's just that, I think that, as an industry, we have a tendency to be afraid to mix things up a little bit.
HK: When I was thinking about something fun, I just came up with Patapon -- so I didn't think about it too much. However, actually, I was once trapped in this bad kind of thinking -- that complex games look better.
However, I returned to my originality; my original idea that simple games are better. And a lot of people around me said, "Are you really sure that you can realize a good game with only three commands?"
And I said yes, and I tried to convince all the people around me -- but I did not realize this alone: I had good teamwork from music creators, and programmers, and everybody.
When it comes to collaboration, a lot of games, it seems, are designed with thick paper design documents, and the specifications are set at the beginning, and people go off -- but that's really becoming completely out of fashion in America, because people are finding that doing iterative designs, iterations, one after the other, experimenting, arrives at better games with more fun gameplay; can you talk about the process that you worked collaboratively, on the team?
HK: We started development with my specifications, and the sound designers, they joined us even before the prototyping stage. So they gave us a lot of proposals, as to how to make a fun sound, and how to respond to the commands.
So the key word of the game is "fun", and they were very good at giving proposals about fun aspects. And the programmers, they also responded to very difficult requests from us, and within a week, they always came up with the solutions so we could touch and feel the game. So, we repeated this process for two or three months, to build up a prototype.
So, you relied more on prototyping to develop the game? Because preplanning is very common, I think, in Japan; you used more of a prototype process to develop this game.
HK: Well, I devoted myself to prototyping, and at that stage I didn't have any picture of the full game at all. However, when we came up with the prototype, and if I thought, "This is going to be fun," then I know that this is going to be successful.
Therefore, we didn't come up with any preplan first. So, after coming up with the prototype, and once we felt that this is going to be a success, then we started thinking about the content.
JY: To elaborate on this: The development took two years' time, but only the last three months were dedicated to mass production of content. So, that means that the remaining months were used for the prototype.
What games have you worked on before Patapon? Were you at Sony the whole time? And what games have you worked on?
HK: I have been working Sony Computer Entertainment for 10 years, and my debut title was Xi [aka Devil Dice and Bombastic]. And the most recent title, besides Patapon, was Bravo Music [aka Mad Maestro]. Now, as you may know, this was an orchestral game, where you have to conduct the orchestra.
So, any time I come up with the game development, the first thing I think about is whether there's any opportunity to use a new kind of interface; that's the general idea.
It's interesting because, I guess over the course of your career, then, in terms of the games you've made, it's games that are more accessible; a little more oriented towards light users.
And what's interesting is that I was just talking to Kouno-san, from Loco Roco, and he started off making games like Legend of Dragoon, which is a really hardcore RPG, and came to the same point; but he said he learned something along the way, every time. So I'm wondering how your experience had been, in learning, and coming up with these ideas.
HK: Well, actually, right after I graduated from university, I was teaching grade school students at a school. However, I had always had a dream of developing games, so therefore I joined a start-up company. Back then, I didn't have any skill at all, but I just had a big dream of creating interesting games. And then, after a while, Sony offered me a position, as a designer.
And you said that I have reached a goal of developing a simple game, however, I don't see this as a goal yet; I still think this is a process for me. And nobody knows; some day I might challenge a more complex game. However, in any case, my adventure would still continue, but I believe that I would always be aiming to make a game that is interesting for everybody.
Did any of your experience as a teacher inform your design effort? Watching children come to terms with learning to understand something -- did that affect your process for developing games that people can understand and learn how to play?
HK: In my previous career as a teacher, what I learned is that if my students are happy, they would learn more; so, we had to praise them rather than scolding them. So, that's the biggest hint I got for the creation of games: I have to make the users happier, so they would feel like they are encouraged to go to the next stage.